Generally considered to be the first great war of the 20th century, the conflict saw Russia and Japan – the two dominant nations in north-east Asia – battle for control over Korea and Manchuria.
But why did the war break out, and what is its historical significance? Here, Dr Philip Towle from the University of Cambridge tells you everything you need to know about the conflict…
This article was first published in February 2014
Q: When and why did the Russo-Japanese War break out?
A: It broke out on 8 February 1904. The Russians and Japanese had been jostling for some years for control over Korea and Manchuria, which they both regarded as strategically and economically important.
At the start of the war, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet moored outside Port Arthur in Manchuria, and also began landing troops at Chemulpo in Korea.
Q: Why is it so little remembered in Europe?
A: Its impact was blunted by the greater conflict that broke out in Europe 10 years later. But it is still remembered in Japan and, to a lesser extent, in Russia. It is certainly not because the war was unimportant politically or militarily.
Q: Who won the war?
A: The Japanese won every battle. The Russian naval forces based in Port Arthur were rattled by the losses they suffered in February 1904, and even more so by the death of their most charismatic commander, Admiral Stepan Makarov, when his flagship was blown up by a mine in April 1904.
Their ships spent much of the time in harbour before trying to escape on 10 August 1904 round the Korean peninsula to Vladivostok in Russia’s far eastern provinces. In the ensuing battle of the Yellow Sea, the flagship, Tsarevitch, was badly damaged, and the battle line fell into confusion before retreating to harbour.
Eventually the fleet was destroyed by the Japanese forces besieging Port Arthur from the landside, and the port itself surrendered in January 1905. The Russians sent another fleet to the far east to redeem the situation but, after an epic voyage, that too was obliterated by the Japanese at the battle of Tsushima in May 1905.
Q: Were the Japanese as successful on land?
A: Almost: they advanced from Korea across the Yalu river into Manchuria and, whenever the Russians tried to stand and fight, the Japanese outflanked them and forced them to retreat along their supply line, the railway to the north.
The two most important battles, at Liaoyang in August 1904 and Mukden in March 1905, were won by Japanese encircling movements, the quality of their artillery and the superior courage and training of their soldiers.
Q: What was the historical significance of the war, and what were the long-term effects?
A: The Japanese victory greatly encouraged nationalism in Asia and Africa. It was the first war in which a non-European nation had defeated a great European power using all the resources of modern technology.
Paradoxically, the war showed that Japan was bent on imperial expansion in Asia just when the European powers were starting to appreciate the nationalist threats to their empires. The Japanese were able to assert their control over Korea after the war, but only in the face of stiff guerrilla resistance by the Korean people, leading to bitter hatred that still poisons Japanese-Korean relations.
The war raised the international profile of the United States. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who convened the conference at Portsmouth in the USA that brought the war to a close in September 1905, and earned the president the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Russia the war led to revolts that presaged the revolution of 1917, and showed how politically destabilising defeat would be in future conflicts. The only part of the Russian state that had performed effectively was the Trans-Siberian Railway, which had kept hundreds of thousands of troops supplied thousands of miles from St Petersburg.
The war demonstrated the general weakness of old-fashioned autocracies, like Russia, which could not mobilise the support of the whole people – every European autocrat involved in the First World War was to be overthrown.
The war also showed some signs of bogging down in the sort of stalemate that bedevilled the fighting in the First World War, although this was not so obvious at the time because the armies involved were much smaller, and the Japanese were so superior to their Russian enemies.
The war was also a poor guide to future Japanese attitudes to the Law of War and humanitarianism. In 1904–05 they treated Russian prisoners and wounded with respect, but by the Second World War they no longer felt bound by such ‘western’ conventions.
Altogether then, the Russo-Japanese War was an ominous opening to the 20th century for the European powers, demonstrating how power was shifting to the United States and to other non-European nations, and how fragile many of the monarchies had become.